I’ve missed doing a blog for a couple of weeks but it hasn’t been from neglect. I’ve been busy.
I submitted a final draft of my new book to my editor on November 5th. I also sent it to a couple of readers, and proffered a copy to a person here in town who had done a factual review of a local military history book, to see if she would be interested in reviewing mine. My book is an adult-sized 100K word, 200 page historical fiction novel. Most of the book is set in World War II. The main character experiences a number of significant events: initial training in Florida, a year’s training in England, D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the Breakout, Paris, Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, crossing over into Germany, a Task Force sent behind the front lines, the end of the war in Europe, the Occupation Army, dealing with the Dachau Concentration Camp, and the return home.
In short, I covered a lot of the war.
I wanted confirmation that I used the historical World War II events and facts correctly. I want to be right in what I’ve written because I’m sensitive to being roasted alive for getting it wrong. I know the book is fictional, but it’s historical fiction, which makes it a different animal. Historical fiction uses a situation from history as a basis for a fictional story, but readers expect that the historical events are basically true. Some readers can be truly hostile if they’re not.
I’ve seen several situations where someone knowledgeable in history blasts the author for making simple mistakes – wrong names, wrong weapons, wrong vehicles, wrong time of the year, wrong vegetation, wrong clothes, wrong food, even the sun being in the wrong place – you name it and the author gets burned by the righteous. Sometimes in public, and sometimes loudly in public. It’s not what any writer wants.
I want to be right. The book isn’t nonfiction but I want to be correct where I can be.
I couldn’t find a historian qualified and willing to review a book that addresses the whole war. My next approach was to find the sources for all the facts that I did use. Obviously, I wasn’t in WWII, I wasn’t an operator on an SCR 584 aircraft warning radar, I didn’t fight in any of the battles, I didn’t live among combat soldiers, I have never dug a foxhole, or cowered in one because an enemy was trying to shoot me. I have not visited Dachau Concentration Camp, gone on a Task Force behind enemy lines, gone cross country in Bavaria to escape German patrols, or ever eaten C rations. Well, wait a minute. I have eaten C rations but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember anything beyond the crackers and the can opener.
Anyway, I haven’t done the things on that list, but I have read about all of them, in some form or fashion. I believe I know enough and am skilled enough that I can write about it with confidence and authenticity. But proving that I know what I’m writing about is something else, and that’s the purpose of my finding source materials to support it.
I think I’ve done a good enough job. See the picture. That’s my office during the last two weeks. There are 28 books, most of which I have read cover to cover, while the others I have skimmed for what I needed; 42 articles that I have printed off the web, all of which I’ve read beginning to end; I’ve used ten or more maps of the areas involved; and I’ve visited England, London, Normandy, the Allied beaches, Paris, a number of major museums, and one town in Germany whose cathedral was bombed by a B-17. Additionally, I had my dad’s pictures, itinerary and military papers.
When I finished, I had cited 137 instances in the book with a factual source for the associated piece of information or event, all the way to quoting from Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. I had read all of the sources before I wrote the story but I couldn’t point to where. Now I can.
It took every day of two weeks to do it.
I am happy I did. I was surprisingly faithful to the sources, but still found several instances that needed a better job of conforming to the facts; I changed the structure of the book to make it read more in the moment; and I added a few thousand words to make the events more substantial. The major effect was that once I saw all the information sources together, I better understood the story I was trying to write and how the story should be told.
It is stunning to truly see the width, breadth, and depth of the vision that Hitler, Himmler, Goring and the other Nazi leaders were set on fulfilling. If my book can show that vision, if it can make readers understand the fundamentals of waging war, if readers can imagine the level of atrocities that happened and why, and comprehend the terrible consequences of what losing the war would have meant, I will have written a book worth writing.
After a dozen drafts, the first of which I started in March, I submitted my manuscript to my publisher this morning. It was accepted without his reading it. Is this guy a sucker or what?
I sent the manuscript to the editor of one my previous books, asking if she would edit the new one and she said “yes”.
I will now send the manuscript to a local historian and ask if she will review it for accuracy and authenticity; I have a lot of WWII stuff in the story. I will pay for the service.
I sent the manuscript to three friends to test the waters.
Now I’m worried.
It’s hard to let go of something that I’ve loved and hated for eight months. I’m worried that it will read like a Sweet Valley High Teen Romance Novel; I’m worried that I attributed a quote to General James Patton when I really meant General George Patton; I’m worried that readers won’t understand why I included a torture scene from Dachau Concentration Camp (it gave me a good ending); I’m worried that the IRS will refuse any of my expenses for the research trip to Europe because the book is a scam; and I’m worried that I used “your” where I should have used “you’re”.
But, if I expect my novel to be published, I have to let it see the light of day and parade it in front of several sets of critical eyes. If there’s a time for humiliation, it’s when it will remain between friends.
The bright side of letting it go for public review is now I can think about seeing my kids at Christmas. That will last about a week until my editor calls, needing a “little clarification” and then I’ll be back trying to figure out why I wrote what I wrote and what I really meant to write. Okay, well, I’ve been here before. She will find things that are opaque that I thought were perfectly clear. She’ll find a character never mentioned before, and it will a character whose name I changed three drafts ago, except for that single place. She’ll find a sentence that has 82 words and an untold number of sentences without verbs. I am in love with semi-colons.
One time, I accidentally deleted three chapters from one draft to the next. I didn’t notice for a month.
One time, I located Pittsburgh in Ohio.
One time, I accidentally deleted the back half of one chapter and the front half of the following chapter, and had put the two remaining halves together. My editor was finding the writing to be a little hard to follow before I figured out what I’d done. That’s one reason to keep all your drafts.
One time, I found 27 misspellings in the final draft because I forgot to run Spell Check. I hate failing on the easy stuff; it’s soooooo embarrassing.
One time, I misspelled my own name on the front page.
One time, I managed to reach the climax of the story in the first chapter, leaving the rest of the book surprisingly dull. It worked out though – I just moved the first chapter to the end of the book.
One time, I reviewed one of my books in print and realized that the blurb on the back cover was from the previous book.
So, I have more adventures to look forward to, but I will console myself with the idea that this is what it takes. If I want to be a writer, if I want to produce books that people enjoy reading, if I want to be showered in millions from my royalties, if I want to develop my craft to a point of satisfaction, then these are the things that I get to do.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.